Everything Everywhere All at Once is a fitting title for a movie so absurdist in its tone and delivery it borders between genius filmmaking and sloppy pretentiousness. And I know I’m going to anger all the film nerds with this review but I liked the movie just enough to sit through it again in the distant future, but felt that there was too much going on that didn’t need to be there.
One could simply look at the film distributor A24, the 21st Century version of Miramax with an emphasis on even more stranger movies for auteur filmmakers. But since A24 celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it may not suffer the fate that happened to Miramax once it was bought out by the House of Mouse and then turned out silly movies like She’s All That and became everything it was supposed to be against. Written and directed by Daniels (the creative duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), who produced it along with Joe and Athony Russo who pretty much saved the MCU from going down the same rabbit hole the DCEU has, the focus is on a multiverse (which the MCU reportedly is going to do for a while).
Daniels along with the Russo Brothersa have some fun with a movie that combines multiple genres (family drama, martial arts and action, sci-fi and even parody and metafiction) into one movie. The Russos were also involved with the NBC/Yahoo Screen series Community which had a few episodes dealing with alternative timelines and universes. And this movie focuses on the concept of what would happen if you took a different step in life, which filmmakers have been doing for years since Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. And you can see a pieces of George Bailey in Michelle Yeoh’s wonderful performance.
The movie is set mostly in an IRS office building as well as a laundromat, owned and operated by Evelyn Quan Wang (Yeoh in the role of a lifetime), who’s become dissatisfied with her life as middle-age malaise has set in. Her more traditional Chinese-American father, Gong Gong (a wonderful performance by James Wong) is in town to celebrate Chinese New Year. Evelyn is married to her meek and goofy huband, Waymond (a well cast Ke Huy Quan) who has become fed up with their relationship and wants to present her with papers to dissolve their marriage. However, she’s too busy at the start getting info ready for a meeting at the IRS later that day and business for him to drop the ball.
Also, their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has shown up with her girlfriend, Becky Sregor (Tallie Medel) and Evelyn is worried about her father finding out that not only is his granddaughter involved in a same-sex relationship but in love with a non-Chinese person. There’s also the customers at the laundromat, including Debbie the Dog Mom (Jenny Slate) who has come for her laundry and is in too much of a hurry as she is talking on her phone and has her dog in a child stroller. Evelyn comically refers to her as “Big Nose,” but despite this she wants to invite her to a Chinese New Year celebration later that evening at the laundromat.
However, things go from bad to what the fuck at the IRS office where Waymond tells her in the elevator that he’s a Waymond from a different universe and not as timid and meek. He writes some info on the back of the legal papers and hands it to her. But once the elevator doors open, he sees like the same Waymond. And during her meeting with Deidre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis in a hilarious attire looking more like she’s from a different decade), Evelyn can’t get a grasp on what is happening as Deidre questions the huge receipts she has brought in. Gong Gong who is in a wheelchair seems just as confused as Evelyn and she doesn’t understand what’s happening until she follows the instructions Waymond wrote. The diaogue is constantly cutting between English and Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese) to add to the frustration we experience through Evelyn’s eyes.
This meeting leads to several scenes that go from Waymond using a fanny pack with fish aquarium gravel to fend off security guards to Deirdre going full Matrix-style martial arts with Evelyn in a stairwell. This is tha Alphaverse Waymond who tells her the multiverse is being threaten by Jobu Tupaki (also played by Hsu) who is the Alphaversion of Joy. In this Alphaverse, Evelyn developed the technology of “verse-jumping” which allows people to see the alternative universes of their lives. We learn that Evelyn and Waymond got together against the advice (and approval) of Gong Gong and moved away initially thinking it would be great to own and operate a business as a married couple.
We also see what would have happened if Evelyn had stayed with her parents. She ends up becoming a martial arts celebrity and actress but also discovers that Waymond has become more successful financially. The movie looks at the what ifs people deal with on a daily basis. Who hasn’t thought what would have happened if they asked out that one person or decided not to take a job they ended up hating? The Back to the Future trilogy deals with the concept of alternative timelines. And other movies like Mr. Destiny and The Family Man to name a couple have examine the concept of what else would’ve happened if one minor thing was done differently. Even the second season of The Orville looked at the devastation to the universe following knowledge of what’s going to happen in a relationship of two characters who get married but later divorced.
Unfortunately, everything about this comes up short in an overly long movie that never achieves the angle it’s wanting to make. This is sad because the entire cast is so perfectly cast and handles the roles so well despite the plot’s problems. However, I felt like there was too much going on. It almost feels like an avant garde student film. While it’s not near as bad nor pretentious as David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, it still feels a little like it insists upon itself.
Now, going into this, I felt some of the hype and media praise was a problem. I had seen Daniels’ previous movie Swiss Army Man, which despite its outrageous, absurd concept, worked very damn well. But they knew how far to take that movie. I think if this movie had cut some things out and came in at just under two hours with credits, it might have been better. I’m not saying it probably won’t end up with several award nominations because the entire cast needs to be recognized. At 93, Hong is deserving of at least an Oscar nomination. And Yeoh has done so much in her career, this role and whole movie wouldn’t work without her.
Quan spent years trying to live down his child roles in The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that he had walked away from acting in his early 30s and stayed away for 15 years. He has finally shown he can handle mature roles. Hsu is the biggest surprise in her role and I expect this will open a lot of doors for her. And while people are so quick to criticize Bridget Fonda and Kelly McGillis for not looking the same in middle-age as they did in their youth, Curtis’ role is one big fuck you to the criticism.
I would strongly recommend someone watch Swiss Army Man before watching this if you’re not familiar with Daniels. I anticipate a lot of people won’t be too satisfied with the movie. But it will keep many other people entertained and excited.
What do you think? Please comment.